I’ll Wait for the Book

by | May 13, 2022 | General | 1 comment

Scriptwriters have long used novels and short stories as the basis for their work, for both movies and TV shows. I suppose good ideas are hard to come by in Hollywood, so why not poach someone else’s blood, sweat and tears, right? And who among us hasn’t daydreamed about our book being turned into a blockbuster film or Netflix series? In their defense, there are only a dozen or so original plots in the world anyway, and they’ve all been used.

I became a film buff when I was a kid and if the movie was based on a book, I’d usually read it afterward. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that in most cases, the two had little resemblance to each other! These changes were often minor, usually because the book was long or contained mature content, but it made me curious as to how often that happened, and what the results were.

“Double Indemnity” was a bestselling novel by James M. Cain, a cynical tale of greed fueled by lust. Naturally, that called for a movie version to cash in on its popularity. The screenwriters apparently thought Cain hadn’t done his job correctly, because they re-arranged pieces of the plot. The result was a classic film noir that still holds up today. Even Cain grudgingly admitted that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did an okay job with their adaptation.

Speaking of Chandler, his breakthrough murder mystery “The Big Sleep” had Hollywood blockbuster stamped all over it. It was the second on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Bogart forged the template for every cynical private eye that followed. It’s an entertaining film because of the chemistry between the two stars but unfortunately, you’re left scratching your head at the end and asking “So who did it? And why?” At one point, the writers even consulted Chandler for an answer, but he said he didn’t know. His lack of interest could be because he wasn’t asked to adapt his own novel, and probably didn’t care.

A lot of Ernest Hemingway’s stories made it to the screen, with mixed results. He claimed not to have liked most of them, with two exceptions. The first ten minutes of “The Killers” pretty much copied his short story word for word. When the plot veered into uncovering the motive for the murder, Hemingway stopped watching. He also enjoyed “For Whom the Bell Tolls” because it starred Gary Cooper, whom Hemingway had envisioned when he wrote the book.

He had reservations about another adaptation, “To Have and Have Not.” Hemingway felt that it was the worst book he ever wrote and bet filmmaker Howard Hawks that he couldn’t make a decent movie out of it. He was proved wrong. Of course, the writers only kept the title, changed the names of the characters and basically made it into a carbon copy of “Casablanca,” but who cared? It also helped that it was the first on-screen teaming of Bogart and Bacall (in her film debut), and the heat between the two radiated from the screen. They were married shortly after the film was completed.

There have been some noteworthy exceptions. The first few James Bond films stayed true to Ian Fleming’s novels, especially “From Russia with Love.” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes is very close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure. “The Godfather” is another example, because Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplay. “The Maltese Falcon” is faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s book due to screenwriter John Huston lifting scenes and dialogue directly from it.

Bringing James Jones’ World War II epic “From Here to Eternity” to the screen was no easy task. It’s a massive book and Jones didn’t pull any punches in his unflattering portrayal of the United States Army. The book was controversial because of raw language, sex, violence, racial slurs, the primary love interest is a prostitute, and one of the soldiers is gay-for-pay. Somehow, they managed to clean it up and get it past the censors in 1953, and it won a ton of awards.

Several of Donald E. Westlake’s crime capers were turned into entertaining movies, particularly “The Hot Rock,” “The Organization” and “The Split.” When he sold the rights to any of his stories featuring a career criminal named Parker, however, he refused to let the producers use the name Parker unless they bought the entire series, which no one was willing to do. His Parker story “The Hunter” has been filmed twice, as “Point Blank” (with Lee Marvin playing Walker), and “Payback” (with Mel Gibson as Porter). Most of Westlake’s film adaptations retained the personality and nuances of his characters.

Elmore Leonard didn’t fare too well in the true-to-the-source department. While I enjoyed “Get Shorty,” I looked for comparisons to the book but couldn’t find very many. I noticed the same thing with some of Mickey Spillane’s filmed adventures. “Kiss Me Deadly” is a terrific movie, but many of the book’s characters appeared in name only. Nelson DeMille’s “The General’s Daughter” was hard to put down once I began reading it, but I didn’t have that problem with the film version. Robert B. Parker did better with his Spenser series because he took an active role in the development.

Perhaps the low point in book-to-screen adaptations was “The Green Berets” (1967), with John Wayne. Robin Moore’s novel was a factual, non-political story about the elite military unit fighting in Viet Nam. What emerged onscreen was a piece of propaganda designed to sell the public on Wayne’s firm belief that the war was actually good for America. Maybe he thought he was still making those WWII movies where he single-handedly defeated the Axis of Evil.

Pass the popcorn!

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author. His books range from romantic mystery/thriller to contemporary erotic romance. He is also a freelance photographer. When he isn't pursuing those two careers he can often be found in The Florida Keys, indulging his passion for parasailing between research and seeking out the perfect Pina Colada.

1 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Usually if I liked a particular book, I don’t want to see the movie adaptation. It’s guaranteed to be different — even if it is an excellent creative work in its own right. The decisions that script writers and directors make are governed by different criteria than what drives an author.

    Still, I used to fantasize about someone making a movie out of my first novel Raw Silk. I even wrote a letter to Phil Harvey from Adam & Eve, offering him the rights ;^) But if my book were made into a film, I’d probably hate it!

    (Actually one of my novels has been adapted into a game. But I’m not a game player…)

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